On his corner of College Street, Jim Peterman stares at the four American flags planted in his front lawn and rubs his forehead. Peterman, 74, is a retired worker at Cooper Tire, a father of two, an Air Force veteran and a self-described patriot. He took one trip to Washington in 1989 -- best vacation of his life -- and bought a statue of the Washington Monument that he still displays in a glass case in his living room.
He believes a smart vote is an American's greatest responsibility. Which is why his confusion about Barack Obama continues to eat at him.
On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor's house, at his son's auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"It's like you're hearing about two different men with nothing in common," Peterman said. "It makes it impossible to figure out what's true, or what you can believe."
Here in Findlay, a Rust Belt town of 40,000, false rumors about Obama have built enough word-of-mouth credibility to harden into an alternative biography. Born on the Internet, the rumors now meander freely across the flatlands of northwest Ohio -- through bars and baseball fields, retirement homes and restaurants.
Faced with polling that shows about one in 10 Americans thinks Obama is Muslim, the candidate's campaign has launched an aggressive effort to discredit rumors and clarify Obama's past. It created a "Fight the Smears" Web site and a new television ad that reiterates Obama's Christian faith, patriotism and family background. Dozens of volunteers have been sent to Ohio five months in advance of the election so they can spend extra time educating voters.
But on Peterman's block in Findlay, the campaign's efforts may already be too late. A swing voter who entered this election leaning Democratic, Peterson faces a decision that is no longer so simple as a choice between Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, he said. First, he must pick the version of Obama on which he will stake his vote.
Does he choose to trust a TV commercial in which Obama talks about his "love of country"? Or his neighbor of 40 years, Don LeMaster, a Navy veteran who heard from a friend in Toledo that Obama refuses to wear an American-flag pin?
Does he trust a local newspaper article that details Obama's Christian faith? Or his friend Leroy Pollard, a devoted family man so convinced Obama is a radical Muslim that he threatened to stop talking to his daughter when he heard she might vote for him?
"I'll admit that I probably don't follow all of the election news like maybe I should," Peterman said. "I haven't read his books or studied up more than a little bit. But it's hard to ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it. These are good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong?" (MORE)